Tag Archives: inspiration

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

Standard

For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

Travel: Little-Known Hill Stations In The Western Ghats

Standard

My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tribute To Veenapani Chawla

Standard

One night many years ago, I stood in Veenapani Chawla’s kitchen and tried to tell her what it meant for me to be there. So I told her about how in the time since I had first started visiting her home, the Adishakti Theatre outside Auroville, I had been writing poems about my engagement with the space (at once tranquil and terrifyingly charged), my friendships in it, and the Ramayana studies and performances I’d been exposed to there. I remember how, at one moment, she looked me in the eyes and asked if I was happy, and that I weighed myself and said honestly, “Happier.”

As we were speaking, someone came in looking for a knife. VP, as she was known, would not pass it by hand. “I don’t want us to fight”, she said, smilingly. I admired her so deeply, and so simply, that I adopted the superstition immediately.

VP died on November 30th 2014, at 67 years old. She was an artistic pioneer who immersed herself in everything from chhau, kalaripayattu and koodiyattam to western dramaturgy, and dispersed equal energy into developing new work, questing, teaching, and creating and maintaining the magical Adishakti campus. “There is no one like Veenapani Chawla in Indian theatre. There is no other group like her Adishakti – certainly there hasn’t been any since what we call ‘Modern Indian Theatre’ began,” wrote Girish Karnad a few months before her passing. I met many who envied her. But I met so many more who loved her. She was extraordinarily powerful, and equally kind. I had come into her orbit by chance, and stayed in it because of her generosity.

The first time I went to Adishakti, I stayed for a month. I would take my slippers off and dig my feet into the cool earth as though I could shoot out roots, and weep. It was a primal connection. This was where I came to understand intimately that what society calls a fringe is what the psyche knows as a frontier. It was not until a few years later that I found out that my paternal ancestral temple was only twenty minutes away. It had not been an imagined bond between my blood, my bones, those pepper vines, that soil.

I am not a theatre artist. I was not trained in the pedagogy for which Adishakti is famous, developed over decades of intensive research and dedication, and given away to all who wanted to learn it. I never studied performance under VP. I never even learnt how to swim from her – an offer she made me each time I saw her going for her laps in the huge, mineralised pool built on the campus a few years ago. Most of what I learnt from her, though, was intangible – both in its transmission and its nature. Veenapani Chawla was a singular influence on me. Meeting her permanently changed the trajectory of my life. I am who I am at 30 only because I met her at 23. Why I still live in India, why I never married, why I gravitate toward grace and quietude over militancy and glitz – the answers to all of these questions are linked to having known Adishakti and its founder, and having been indelibly transformed by both.

How could so much transpire on the basis of one soft-spoken woman and her home of red earth and verdure? Simple. Above all, knowing Veenapani Chawla taught me that another way, another paradigm, is possible. That one can live a life with devotion at its core: to art, to divinity, and to community.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Immortal Fallout

Standard

When Eric Maschwitz wrote “These Foolish Things” in 1935, he did so after parting with the actress Anna May Wong – she whose ghost it is that clings in the song’s most affecting lyric. In the dozens of times it has been covered by various artists since, and the millions of lingering memories it’s been on the soundtrack to, the phantoms it invokes have surely multiplied. Still, each time I listen to it (my preference is for Nat King Cole’s crisp cadence), I also remember Maschwitz and Wong, though mostly Maschwitz, possessed by a yearning so consuming it had to be written down. Oh how the ghost of you clings.

Love and heartbreak are the Siamese twin muses for much artistic work, inextricably linked, but even at their most shattering, the works are only byproducts to the fact. The immortal fallout, if you will. If the power of their own work could save them, artists might not have, or obey, such self-destructive impulses (ah, but would they create what they do if they didn’t follow those impulses? A question for another time).

Something about the stories behind songs beguiles me. Pop music doesn’t do anything for me because its lyrics are impersonal, written for mass consumption and therefore with the lowest common denominator in mind. I like music steeped in narcissistic soul-searching and that actually completely universal belief that one’s pain is of a magnitude previously unknown to humankind (I also, if it isn’t obvious, like pain). When the rare pop song does attract my attention, I look up its writer. It was little surprise, for instance, to discover that the aching “Beautiful Disaster”, sung by American Idol Kelly Clarkson, was penned by the singer-songwriter Rebekah, who was briefly notable in the mid-90s.

It has to ring true. When Lhasa de Sela belts out he venido al desierto pa’reirme de tu amor – that she’s gone to the desert to laugh at your love – I believe her. It’s important to me that she can be believed. Experience counts. You can fatten up your work to sound like you know what you’re talking about, but experience is the spine.

Reading Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers, I kept thinking about that most haunting of his songs, “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Like the song’s sleepless letter-writer, its protagonist is tortured by a triangle involving himself, his woman, and a man beloved enough to call brother. The book draped a new layer over my history with the song, and this was both illuminating and unsettling, because it fragmented and realigned some understanding I must have had in my head of what it was about. It changed its pathos, neither for better nor worse. I myself read Cohen because it is his songs that punctuate the landscape of my life; Leonard Cohen is my downfall, or at least, I hold him personally responsible for several of mine.

It’s these downfalls, of course, that inspire my own work. And like the vast majority of artists I fill my life with, the confessional is my instrument. Still, my writing is incidental, not fundamental. Life is more important than its recording. But caught in the act of creating, neither what happens to me nor to the work afterwards are of any consequence. Though sometimes, I’ll grant you this, there are.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

A Song, Schnabel and A Handful of Sex Goddesses

Standard

There’s a little something exciting happening mid-next week, as you may or may not already know. Meanwhile, though, here are a few more things that have me excited lately.

1. Candace Bushnell’s original Sex and The City columns in The New York Observer. I’m actually surprised to have not read about this on other blogs, so either I’m way ahead or way behind. Despite my affection for the TV show, I always kind of wondered if it had to be in some ways a little lowbrow (sue me), because it made  too ridiculous a number of women believe they they could see themselves reflected in it, realistically or otherwise. As a reader and writer, I also wished those columns that Carrie was constantly typing out in her undies would actually make it into the show in some way. And here they are, and heavens, they are gold. Finally I see, really and truly, why this was so groundbreaking, how it was writing like this that actually laid the blueprint for the cultural phenomenon. I take my pretentious writerly beret off to Candace Bushnell — this archive proves that no matter how many imitators, there really can only be one CB.

2. Jerome Kugan’s home-recorded cover of “On The Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Some covers really are better than the originals, and other covers of. Harry Connick Jr. ain’t got nothing on you, JK baby! This needs to go on your next album. So the poor folks who aren’t your friends can hear it too. Hahaha. ;)

3. This slightly snarky New York Times article says that Julian Schnabel is going to have a show in India. Where where where? Please say Chennai.

4. This 1996 essay by Sandra Cisneros, which I read in order to remind me again why it’s okay to be a certain kind of writer. This week I have been saying a litany of graces for the great ones who paved the way for someone like me to be myself and be okay with it. Without Frida, I don’t know if I would have been able to live with many aspects of myself. Without Sandra, I don’t know if I would have stopped writing funny, sexy, confessional poetry in favour of smarter, more serious stuff. Without my great-grandmother Valliamma, I don’t know if I could have learnt how to feel the fear and do it anyway. There is no shame in acknowledging inspiration.

5. Two Guardian profiles on gifted bad girls, Manet’s muse, Victorine Meurent, and another Guadalupe, Lupe Yoli.

The Venus Flytrap: Surrendering To Serendipities

Standard

A dear friend of mine resigned from her job today to be with her toddler – and see where life takes her next.

This is no small step for my freespirited friend, someone widely acknowledged as the blithely charming PR queen of her country, someone who has chased eclipses in Iran, honeymooned in Iceland and worn a dress of orange and blue to her wedding.

“I will honour my promise to you,” she said. “But I will be a humble stay-at-home mum from now on.” She had told me some time before that she was considering taking up an artform, an idea I had applauded. The truth is, other than her beautiful house décor and uncanny ability to pick the perfect present for anyone, I have no idea what her creative talents might be. But what I do know, and what I told her, is this: if she does art, she is an artist. No gallery, committee or critic needs to sanction her – or anyone – as such.

I wanted to be an author since I was seven years old. By my late teens, thanks to a series of serendipities catalyzing around my discovery of the magic of spoken word, I already had some semblance of a cult following. But I kept dreaming of having a book – a book would be evidence. A book would make my writing real.

I had the good sense, however, to not jump at the first fishes that bit. I rejected at least two offers to publish a collection because where they came from didn’t sit well with me: a print-on-demand run by a communist with a fetish for hijab-ed women in high heels, and a representative of a multinational that packages spirituality with pyramid schemes.

When I finally found the combination of people and promises that suited me best, I thought the rest would be quick and easy. Little did I know I had more to learn: three months ago, the funding for the book was abruptly withdrawn.

There was the brief, requisite shock at this bad fortune, but what alarmed me most was my surprising ambivalence. The ground had given away not because I’d lost my long-cherished dream, but because I was forced to acknowledge that it was no longer my dream. Other people wanted to see this book much more than I did – I was more infatuated with the process than the project. “You wanted to be a writer, right?” I asked myself. “Well, you already are. Book or no book.”

But this story doesn’t end with an excuse. When I finally, wholeheartedly, accepted that my book wasn’t going to happen (at least, not the way I wanted it to), the miraculous happened: a new investor showed up. Just like that. I hadn’t looked. I had asked only in the silence of my own heart. Most of all, I hadn’t expected.

And this is what I think holds me in good stead as I prepare to leave familiar waters. Whatever happens to this book, I am what I am. What I wanted in the first place was not fame or wealth. It was to write. I will do just that, and trust that all else will follow. I am humbled by this journey enough to see that I do not control it at all.

In Om Shanti Om, Shah Rukh Khan says that when you want something enough, the whole universe conspires to give it to you. What I’ve found to be truer still is that if you are something enough, if you own and inhabit that skin in a way that doesn’t fixate on its outcome, the universe aligns itself in equally serendipitous ways.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.